My house mate Alice and I met up with Sam Lee before his gig at the Turner Sims on 3rd March to ask him about his debut album Ground of its Own and what it’s like being a folk musician.
Ground of its Own, your debut album, received great critical attention, not only from the folk community, as you were nominated for three Radio 2 folk awards, but you were also nominated for the Mercury. Were you surprised at the level of success that the album had?
Yeah, sure I was, in that it’s great to have that kind of reaction from your work. I knew that before I’d even started making it that it was going to be a different record from any folk album that had come out, so there was a sense that if I did it well, if I put love and care into making it, I was hopeful it would receive a different sort of attention than your run-of-the-mill guitar and fiddle line-up. I knew right from the start that I was going to make something that hadn’t been made before.
You’ve given a fresh take to some traditional tracks. How did you go around arranging them, because you use some odd instrumentation?
My philosophy with finding the instruments for arranging and the ways of playing them was very close to the way of finding the songs. I look for the stuff that nobody pays any attention to. Instruments that nobody thinks about: Jew’s harps, auto-harps, zithers – thinking outside the box a little bit on the sort of sound makers that get ignored. Then it was about how can they actually be used in a way that was contemporary and beautiful and not tokenistic. I’ve always listened to odd albums, rare field recordings made in Mali or wherever and I gather this library of material sources and I borrowed from them and that’s my approach really.
What would you say’s your favourite instrument you use on the record?
I love the Jew’s harp. We used to have two Jew’s harp players in the band, but they both moved on and I then had to learn the Jew’s harp. I love it.
You’re how many dates into your tour now?
This is the third and we’ve got twenty dates, I think.
I’ve been to quite a few folk gigs and I tend to find that there tends to be an older audience. Do you find the same thing?
Well, it’s interesting being on tour, because things are slightly different. Usually when I play it’s a really young crowd. We all come from London and that’s where we do most of our gigs and there’s a very young following we’ve got there. So far on the tour it’s been slightly different. The first gig was quite young and then the second gig was an older crowd, but then it was £25 ticket. I don’t many people my age who can afford a £25 ticket! It depends. Maybe, as we’re on a university campus, that might get a few youngens down. Fingers crossed. Not that I’m an ageist – I mean this sincerely: I love a total mixed crowd.
Why do you think folk music is still important for modern audiences?
Because it tells very important universal tales that are a vital part of us as human beings and innately we are story lovers. As a creature, the human being searches for stories and these songs hit a really resonant vein in that sense. I think, a lot of the time, people don’t realise how much they love it, because commercial/popular music pulls you away into listening into other stuff. But I love telling a story. I love the story of where the songs come from; I love the stories in the songs themselves and I think they resonate with something which is really inherently truthful about us. You have to confront a lot of things within yourself to accept it, to allow them to effect you. They reveal the emotional side of us as human beings and that’s a good thing.
You have an appreciation for the traditional side of the music, but do you also feel that you need to contemporize – not just musically, but lyrically?
I’m not one of these people who revels in the knights on horses aspect of it. That bit of it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable and sometimes I hear some wonderful stories, but they’re dressing up can be a bit out of date. I try to find the material that is slightly timeless in that sense, because I don’t visualize maidens in pretty white gowns and men on horses. I don’t have a period drama and re-enactment, filmic, appreciation of it, so I kind of like to keep it so that these are stories that could be happening now. Often they are. There are stories of murders, separation, infanticide, honour killing – all that sort of stuff comes into folk songs. It’s all stuff you read about everyday in the newspapers.
What drew you specifically to the folk music of the traveler communities?
They’re the only community really keeping the songs alive in the oral tradition, in the old-fashioned way having been passed down. They’re a community that have totally been ignored by outside society, as social pariahs, and much rejected and suppressed in who they are, as a community, as people, as a cultural tradition. So I see within them a huge wealth of carrying our ancestral heritage: culture, music, dance, art. Yet, they’re totally ignored and that’s kind of… fuck! It’s a travesty. There are some wonderful people, wonderful characters, with a real passion and spirit that I’m really attracted to. They’re fabulous people. We’ve got Thomas McCarthy on the road with us – we don’t just have him do a slot, he sings a song here and there within our show. He’s of the most alive and wonderful people I’ve ever met, so why are he and his people not celebrated and given the respect that they deserve?
Did you find it easy to get in contact with the traveler communities, or was that something which was not that easy to do?
I naively, (and still naively to a certain extent, though now I’ve got very good contacts and I’ve spent some years getting to know them and different families), just started knocking on caravan doors. I just said: ‘Do you know any songs? I’m a singer, do you know any songs?’ When they hear me sing they realise that I’m not there to make a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding film out of them, or exploit them. They know that I’ve learnt from them and listened. Anybody that spends the time learning about you is a good person. I’m not there to exploit. I heard a great expression the other day that: if you talk to somebody about themselves, they’ll listen to you for hours. I go there and I just listen. They get a chance to talk about the positive sides of their life. They’ve got this kid from London who’s come all the way across the country to do it. They feel a bit honoured and then they find out that’s a bit famous and they’re like ‘WOAH!’ I’ve got this 85 year-old woman who lives just up the road from here who I’ve become very close to. She’s a prolific singer. She loves it; she has this young man who comes and visits her and I sit on her carpet for literally whole days and she’ll just sing and talk and tell. She’s incredible! She’s seen my music videos; she’s seen the front-cover of the Observer newspaper, which she got on and she was like: ‘What have I done in my eighty-fifth year to have this?’ It’s great. There’s part of me that really revels in that.
There are a lot of negative interpretations of the gypsy community. Do you think music is a good way to amend that; to show it’s not all bad?
Absolutely. Music knows no borders. It’s a great peace maker. I think I’ve hit upon something (I’m not the first to hit upon it – many of my mentors from the folk music world have been singing gypsy songs and telling the stories in the same way that I have), but I’m probably the first to focus in on it so strongly. It’s a very powerful way of communicating a sense of beauty and greatness. I’m refining it and cleaning it up and making it a little more accessible in some ways, by putting instruments to it and contemporary arrangements, but I think it’s no different to what happens in a lot of other cultures. I think music is a very powerful way of showing that these are people who kept alive the settled people’s heritage. It’s taken me as this odd agent character to come in and reintroduce it back to our society, but also to the traveler community as well. Travelers often are forgetting and losing – they’re dying off. That idea of repatriation is very important to me.
Were there any genres from outside of folk which influenced the making of your album?
Yeah, in fact, pretty much all genres expect for folk music. [laughs]I didn’t listen to a lot of the revival. I run a folk night in London, a regular thing called The Nest Collective and we put on three folk gigs a week sometimes, so I hear a lot of British folk music. Yet, a lot of it hasn’t really effected my musical genesis at all. I’m aware of it and I’ve negotiated my music as part of it and around it, but I’d much rather listen to world music. I have a lot of indigenous musicological recordings from sound libraries from primitive and indigenous communities around the world. I listen to a lot of Azerbaijani, Asian, Persian, African recordings – tribal music, that sort of thing. Gamelan has been a great influence and then a huge amount of jazz, rock n roll and funk and soul and r’n’b, blues.
Pretty much everything.
Yeah. I used to be a vinyl collector and now I’m a song collector. They serve the same purpose. I gather sound and ideas.
What’s your favourite record in the collection?
You can’t ask that question! [laughs]
It is the impossible one.
That’s like ‘who’s your favourite child?’ [laughs]I don’t know. It sways from album to album. The albums that have had the most influence on me aren’t neccesarily my favourite albums and the albums that are my favourite aren’t neccesarily the ones that have had the most influence on me. As I grew up I was obsessed, a huge devotee, of Michael Jackson. I think in terms of methodology and creative output and the complexity of music, he’s unsurpassed. His popularity shouldn’t deny that as being still the case. Actually, when you take his music apart, it’s bonkers how clever it is and sometimes how simple it is. Then I got into Joni Mitchell and her entire catalogue blew me away and changed everything in the way I thought. Now I’m into… there’s a band from Norway called The Valkyrien Allstars who play the hardanger fiddle, (which is my other favourite instrument), with a rock outfit on three violins with this singer who’s a rock chick. They are amazing!
You used to be a burlesque dancer, can I expect to see you throwing some shapes on stage tonight?
Yeah, if the crowd is up for it. I won’t be taking any clothes off unfortunately.
That’s a shame. [laughs]
I loved those days when I used to get naked! But not anymore.
How did you find the transition from being a visual artist and a dancer into going into music?
It’s funny. We did a gig at an art gallery last night and I don’t see any difference. Making music and making art are the same thing. You’re finding sounds and you’re curating them altogether. You’re interpretting. Nothing’s original. I wouldn’t pretend to be trying to make original music, nor would I even want to. I’m simply rehashing what’s been done before in, possibly, a new way. Some one once said to me: ‘you can only vomit what you eat’. [laughs]Culturally speaking, I think that’s very true.